Writers on the Range: Trail dogs do the grunt work on our public lands
October 2, 2014
Trail dogs — that's what trail workers across the country call themselves. It tells you what life is like for the thousands of young men and women who spend their summers tending to the travel corridors on our country's public lands.
Trail dogs really do work like dogs, cutting back brush, sawing through trees and rebuilding rough paths in heat, sleet and thunderstorms. They wolf down dinner after a day spent building bridges, managing pack mules or removing invasive weeds from some high-mountain meadow. Like a canine pack, a crew bonds together, building camaraderie and mutual trust.
But that's where the analogy ends, because working on a trail crew is more than an outdoor experience that builds muscle and confidence. It gives young people an opportunity to get out on our nation's forests, grasslands and parks and develop a commitment to service as well as a deep love for our public land. It's like a boot camp that churns out lifelong conservationists. At least that's what happened to me.
That's why the decline of this dignified trade is so troubling. Trail dogs everywhere face a steep reduction in public support for their work, as across the country, land-management agencies continue to slash budgets for recreation and trail maintenance programs.
The Forest Service, which manages more trails than any other agency, is currently burdened with more than $500 million in backlogged maintenance costs for its trail system. The hemorrhage of resources that has caused such neglect shows no sign of abating. In 1980, reports The Wilderness Society, the Forest Service budget allotted $793 for every trail mile on its system. Today, that amount has fallen to about $540.
The agency's Northern Region, where I worked for three years, is a good place to take a closer look at the problem. I talked to one trail dog there, a 23-year veteran on Montana's Bitterroot National Forest, who said, "We don't have enough money to do the job. It's not even close."
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Garry Edson, the region's trails coordinator, described his program's grim financial reality. His trail budget, he says, has decreased by 18 percent in four years, from $10.5 million in 2011, to $8.6 million in 2014. As a result, the region maintains only about one-third of the 28,000 miles of trail for which it is responsible. Without volunteer help from nonprofit groups, it wouldn't be able to do even that.
All this is largely the result of the austerity craze in Washington, D.C., where politicians love to heap scorn on public services like trails maintenance. But it's also due to the fact that an ever-growing portion of the Forest Service budget goes toward fighting wildfires.
"When I started in the agency, fire was about one-third of the budget," says Edson, "and now it is nearly half of the budget. That money has come out of someone's hide, and it comes out of these other areas."
The Forest Service released a report this August that pinned the blame for its declining trail budget on its fire-suppression crusade. The report noted that the number of firefighting personnel —12,000 people — now exceeds the number of land managers employed on our national forests — 11,000 people. When people call the agency the Fire Service, they are only half joking.
What does this mean for trail workers and trail users? It means that many ranger districts have stopped fielding trail crews altogether. It means there are fewer access points to the public lands, fewer trails from which to hunt or fish, and fewer opportunities to take a horseback ride or an ATV adventure in the national forest. It means that more sediment is washing off old eroded trails and into pristine streams. And it means there are fewer job opportunities for young outdoor enthusiasts who want to be a part of our country's magnificent public-lands legacy.
The agency's acceptance of this trend is a breach of public trust. It's a betrayal of the conservationists — most notably members of the Civilian Conservation Corps and their trail-dog descendants — who labored over generations to ensure public access to the public lands. It also shows heedless disregard for the 313 million Americans and counting who increasingly rely on our trail system for affordable recreation.
The Forest Service needs to resist its drift toward neglect and urge Congress to put a little balance back in the agency's budget. And maybe it's time for trail dogs to show their teeth and start howling until our public lands get the respect and care they deserve.
Jimmy Tobias is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a freelance journalist and former trail worker with the Forest Service.
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